Top Secret: CIA explains its Wikipedia-like national security project

Intellipedia lets spies post and edit content wiki-style, and includes YouTube and Flickr versions

BOSTON -- For any company moving to embrace Enterprise 2.0, some resistance to the tools that first gained traction within the consumer space is often inevitable.

But when some in the CIA began pitching Intellipedia, a Wikipedia-like project for its analysts and spies, they were met with some fierce critics.

"We were called traitors, [and were told] we were going to get people killed," Don Burke, Intellipedia's doyen in the CIA, said today at the Enterprise 2.0 Conference here. Sean Dennehy, the CIA's Intellipedia evangelist, added that selling superiors on the use of such tools for collaboration was especially tricky.

"We still call spies collaborators," he noted. "We're trying to encourage collaboration, but there is still a negative connotation with that word."

Despite the early challenges, the CIA now has users on its top secret, secret and sensitive unclassified networks reading and editing a central wiki that has been enhanced with a YouTube-like video channel, a Flickr-like photo-sharing feature, content tagging, blogs and RSS feeds.

Underscoring how vital Intellipedia has become to the agency, the CIA has been providing briefings about data posted on the wiki since October 2007, according to the pair. They did not provide details on who or what agencies they were briefing based on content from the project.

Burke noted than Intellipedia includes instructions from a 1944 CIA field manual for sabotaging companies. The manual suggests that agents encourage companies to use channels to make decisions, and when possible refer matters to committees for further study and consideration. Companies will face further strife when spies within encourage haggling over the precise wording of communications.

Ironically, many companies now follow such policies, which today discourage the use of Web 2.0 tools. "In big organizations, there is always someone who can say no," Burke said. "It is really hard for organizations to change because everyone is looking for someone else to say its OK. Web 2.0 has allowed us to create new avenues of dialogue, to allow new ideas to emerge."

For example, Dennehy added that Intellipedia allows analysts to post ideas and documents that can be edited by others. Like Wikipedia, these edits can be tracked. "In the intelligence community, we're often asked 'What did you know and when did you know it?'" Dennehy quipped.

Intellipedia is built with the same open-source software as Wikipedia, and anyone with access on the various networks can read the posts. Only those users verified as authentic users can edit the content.

"This has enforced a degree of collegiality amongst colleagues," Dennehy noted. "Now when you see someone that makes an edit to a page you are contributing to, you can look back and see where this person works, where their interests lie, making us a community of analysts rather than a community of agencies."

The Defense Intelligence Agency is also using Intellipedia at the Defense Department.

Dennehy noted that Intellipedia has several important distinctions from Wikipedia. First, Intellipedia is not limited to being an encyclopedia. Rather, users can create their own pages to be used within workgroups or teams so they can debate and collaborate around issues.

"We are not typically dealing with facts," he noted. "We are dealing with puzzles and mysteries. Everyone in the community is working on something of vital national security importance. We want to get to the point in the intelligence community where everyone is contributing their knowledge to Intellipedia."

Although some companies have found that the younger generation of workers are clamoring for Web 2.0 tools and baby boomers eschew them, that has not been the case at the CIA, Burke noted. The top contributor to Intellipedia is 69 years old.

"We've seen 23-year-olds [come into the agency] … and within several months be indoctrinated to the existing culture. They want to fit in. All that creativity they had before they walked in the door is pushed aside. Folks that are nearing the end of their career can and do use these tools to transfer that knowledge out of their heads and into these tools," he said.

For those organizations interested in fostering Enterprise 2.0 adoption in their companies, the pair from the CIA suggested that companies start small -- the agency launched Intellipedia with a list of government acronyms to get users editing -- and to encourage users to replace existing business processes like mass e-mails with the tools.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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